A giant among men, Sam Houston stood at least 6-foot-2 (some sources say he was 6-foot- 6) and larger than life. Born in Tennessee in 1793, he lived with Cherokees, befriended Andrew Jackson and survived political and social scandals and disgrace, not to mention drunken benders, to become one of Texas’ greatest heroes. As commander in chief, he led his army to victory at San Jacinto, securing Texas’ independence from Mexico, and he later became president of the Republic of Texas. After Texas became a state on December 29, 1845, he served as governor and senator before his death in 1863.
Houston is buried in his adopted hometown of Huntsville, and he still stands guard over that Texas city just off Interstate 45 thanks to a local artist named David Adickes, who had been known for his paintings—influenced by French modernists—not larger-than-life monuments.
Yet Adickes turned 30 tons of concrete and steel mesh into A Tribute to Courage, a 66-foot statue of Sam Houston standing on a 10-foot base, making it the highest point between Houston and Dallas. More than 10 years after its dedication in 1994, visitors are approaching the 1 million mark, and that figure includes only those who have signed in at the visitors center.
“The visionary courage of David Adickes, Mayor [Bill] Hodges and members of City Council, Sam Houston University officials, and literally thousands of caring Texans who wanted to ‘Stand with Sam’ are to be congratulated for their courage in support of A Tribute to Courage,” says Gene Pipes, curator of education at Huntsville’s Sam Houston Memorial Museum.
When city leaders met to plan for the bicentennial of Sam Houston’s birth, Adickes suggested a larger-than-life statue. “They thought I was kidding,” Adickes recalls. “‘How are we going to pay for this?’”
Recalls Pipes: “Huntsville had been known as ‘Prison City—Execution Capital of the World,’ so when David came up with this idea that could change the image of Huntsville and add luster to the namesake university, everyone thought that’s not a bad thing.”
Encouraged by Mayor Hodges, city officials agreed, providing that no ad valorem tax revenue would be used in the financing of the project. Donations were sought, and the statue was underway. Adickes and company missed the March 2, 1993, bicentennial—“I didn’t have a clue how long it was going to take to build it,” Adickes says— but A Tribute to Courage was dedicated on October 24, 1994.
The statue was built in 10- foot sections in the barn of a ranch owned by Sam Houston State University. “It was a learning curve,” Adickes says from his Houston home. Eventually, the sections were hoisted by crane with the seams filled in later. “I kind of perfected [that technique], I suppose,” Adickes says.
Not bad for a painter who, although he claims “art was in my DNA,” didn’t really study art, especially overwhelming sculptures, at first. Adickes attended Huntsville High School and graduated from Sam Houston State in 1948 with a degree in math and physics. He later studied art at the Kansas City Art Institute and the Atelier Fernand Léger in Paris, even taught art at the University of Texas in the 1950s, but mostly lived and painted abroad (Paris, Barcelona, Tahiti, Japan, Russia, North Africa) before returning to Texas. “Painting was all I wanted to do, which is all I ever did do,” he says.
Then came A Tribute to Courage, and Adickes’ artistic career suddenly changed. “When I was doing Sam Houston’s head in the summer of ’94,” Adickes recalls, “I took a vacation to Canada and drove through Mount Rushmore [in South Dakota] and saw it for the first time and was really overwhelmed by the majesty of it but disappointed I couldn’t get closer to it.”
So while driving home, he conceived another big idea: “Wouldn’t it be great to do the presidents’ heads in a garden in an intimate setting so you could stand and look right at them?” That led to President’s Park in Lead, S.D. (www.presidentspark .com), and Presidents Park in Williamsburg, Va. (www.presidentspark.org). Negotiations are in the works for a third park, with Adickes again sculpting 16- to 20- foot-tall busts of all 43 presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush.
He also thought about doing a “Trail of Texas Giants,” larger-than-life statues of heroes across the state. That never panned out, but Adickes is finishing another privately funded giant statue of Stephen F. Austin in Angleton, Texas. He’s also working on a giant, semiabstract statue of the Beatles and wants to do something “just for fun” on property he owns near the intersection of Interstates 10 and 45 near downtown Houston. “It’s Washington, Lincoln, Houston and Stephen F. Austin shoulder to shoulder. I’m calling it Mount Rush Hour so when people get clogged in for 55 minutes every day they’ll have something to look at.”
He’s finally getting back to painting too, using mostly acrylics, which can be viewed on his website, www.davidadickes.com. “I just sort of put painting on the back burner for about eight years, painting on Sundays or every now and then,” he says. “But I’ve really painted furiously for six to eight months.”
Adickes never considered the Sam Houston statue in Huntsville to be much of an accomplishment while working on it. It has been rewarding that so many people have seen it, but whenever he returns to Huntsville he doesn’t really think about rewards or accomplishments. “To tell you the truth,” he says with a laugh, “every time I go, I stand there and look up and go, ‘What the hell was I thinking?’”
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.